I was lucky enough to have high school English teachers who challenged us every day. Larry Zimmer, my teacher for junior and senior English, was the best teacher I ever had in all my years of schooling, and twice I wrote pieces in which I thanked him. So, I was fascinated by David Denby's book, Lit Up. But, I also challenge the premise, subtitled "One Reporter, Three Schools, Twenty-four Books that Can Change Lives". Although the English teachers at those schools used literature to change lives, it was the teachers, their styles, and their choices in literature that changed lives. Those books might not have changed lives in other hands.
The author is worried about people who do not read in the U.S., and he's right to worry. He says, "A child held, read to and talked to, undergoes an initiation into a useful life; she may slow undergo an initiation into happiness." But, he has seen all the statistics saying teens don't read, so he decided to follow a teacher to determine if teens could learn to like literature and reading. Was tenth grade too late to teach teens to love reading? Sean Leon's English class at Beacon School became his subject for study. Although he spent an entire year with Leon's class, he realized later he should look at some other classes, so he spent time at two other public schools.
At the Beacon School, the English teachers can select the books for their classes, and Sean Leon chose to teach modernist literature. Leon taught works such as Siddhartha, Slaughterhouse-Five, Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, Sartre's No Exit. He wanted his students to define themselves through this literature. He challenged his students at one time to put aside their technology for two days. Denby agrees. "Technology had killed teenagers pleasure in reading books." But, in looking at the difficult reading list, and following Leon's classroom discussions in this book, I propose it was Leon as a teacher that made those works relevant to his students' lives, not the works themselves. And, although most of the Beacon School students from Leon's class went on to college, I wonder if those works actually turned most of them into readers.
Instead, I'm more inclined to think the experiment at Mamaroneck High School might encourage lifelong reading, if the experiment continued. In that public high school, they were determined to create an enjoyment of reading, knowing that would change young people forever. The principal, Elizabeth Clair, said "You have to find the passion, create a social culture of reading." I know that atmosphere would have worked with me, one in which teachers book talked books, offered silent reading, encouraged students to find their own choices, but to continue to challenge themselves.
Various styles of teaching will work with different students. Even Denby tired of Sean Leon's grim choices, and some of the female students silently rebelled when there were no female authors or main characters in the modernist literature. But, Leon, covered in great depth, and the other four teachers who were briefly discussed, brought passion to their teaching. Yes, I'd like to say the books he discussed changed lives. And, I know I did exactly what English teachers want when I fell passionately in love with an author and his books in high school. But, I still give credit to the English teachers themselves, the ones who made those choices, and taught high school students. I think those English teachers found ways to change lives, using literature. And, the teachers and the literature cannot be separated.
Lit Up: One Reporter, Three Schools, Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives by David Denby. Henry Holt & Company. 2016. ISBN 9780805095852 (hardcover), 257p.
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